Sunday, 3 November 2013

Czech Republic - Good afternoon Vietnam!

November 2

Hello everyone!

Part of my heart will always be Asian. Specifically, the thoughts of my year living in Korea will always bring back warm memories, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time travelling across the eastern seaboard of the world’s largest continent. From racing along the Great Wall of China to scaling the monstrous Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, some of my greatest adventures have been in the countries lapped by the Pacific Rim.

 Yet there are many places which I failed to explore, simply because of the lack of time. I 
know you must be thinking that it is plain greedy for a teacher to be asking for more holidays, but I would have relished the prospect of backpacking my way through the countries that I unfortunately didn’t get to during 2010 or beyond. Reading about the impending typhoon that will wreak havoc upon the Philippines fills me with worry but also regret that I am yet to see its beautiful beaches with my own eyes. Similar feelings arise when I think of countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia, which would surely enrich my life if I spent time within their borders.

Of course, there is still plenty of time for my travel radar to land on these places in the future. Yet there is one country in the region that really appeals to me, to the point where I have been particularly close to visiting on two separate occasions. I won’t pass up a chance to say ‘Good morning’ to Vietnam a third time. Even if that means I have to find Vietnam in the Czech Republic…

I am reliably informed that Vietnamese immigrants represent the third largest ethnic minority in the Czech Republic. According to the 2011 census, the Vietnamese diaspora numbers an incredible 83,000. It is thus understandable that Vietnamese cuisine can be found across the capital city. One area that was potentially airlifted from Hanoi to the centre of Europe is a market area known as Sapa, in the southern outskirts of the city. It is here where I reconnected with my Asian heart.

The number of young adults of Asian origin decamping from the local bus intimated to us that we had reached the place often dubbed ‘Little Hanoi’. Walking through a side entrance we noted signs in a variety of languages offering flights and money exchange.

Of course, there were some subtle differences that reminded us that we were in central Europe as opposed to Saigon. The weather was undoubtedly one of them. I may have a utopian view of the Vietnamese climate in my mind, but I am pretty sure that dank, glum, overcast afternoons do not happen frequently in Vietnam.

The market itself also seemed slightly strange, more reminiscent of a scrapyard than an actual market. It reminded me of Soviet-era Kazakh markets, rather than the bright lights and fervour attached to the Asian markets I have frequented. The shopping trolleys filled with the latest goods hark back to a different era.

So what exactly were we looking for? Certainly not Christmas trees, yet they had them in abundance. At least we know where to return to if we decide to plump for having a fake evergreen in the apartment. Garments of all shapes and not too many sizes, perhaps befitting the stereotypical smaller stature of east Asians in general, could be found inside ramshackle concrete buildings. The insistence from sellers prohibiting photographs unfortunately means I cannot show you the best treasures from the jewellery shops, not to mention the gigantic Confederate flag hanging at one of the edges of the rows of stalls…

The main attraction for me was the opportunity to sample authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Though I’m sure the Vietnamese food we have sampled in the Czech Republic so far has been legitimately indigenous, I was looking for an Asian ‘atmosphere’ to go along with my pho. I also hadn’t yet had pho, so needed to rectify that situation as soon as possible.

Before the food came one of the stranger drinks around – bubble tea. For the uninitiated, bubble tea is a flavoured tea which comes with bizarre orbs of jelly at the bottom, which can be sucked into your mouth through a comically oversized straw. The machinery used to blend the drink – essentially attaching the drink to a metal arm which shakes it wildly for a while – and create the thing plastic lid were particularly fascinating to watch. As for the drink…better to order hot than cold in glum Czech weather like this.

Pho is a Vietnamese institution. A thin soup housing countless herbs, spices and flavours, as well as meat and noodles, it seems perfect for a day like this – a day that, as I’ve mentioned, may not happen in its country of origin very often. We ate in a small cafĂ©-style place which reminded me very much of living in Asia – being able to see the food prepared, the smiles of the staff, the family nature of the whole place…and of course other people firmly focused on slurping spoon after spoon of good food down into their stomachs without a glance at what is around them.

The trip to Sapa Market reminded me of many happy memories of my time in Asia. It is nice that I now live in what is very much an international city with cuisines from all over the world to sample. All of my senses were ignited by the surroundings of this strangest of places. The day has made my desire to visit Vietnam, and sample more bubble tea and pho, that much stronger. Or maybe I’ll come and reconnect later in the year by returning here, and grabbing some Christmas decorations for the fun of it.

Love you all


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